Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The American Lives of Three Rivers

by George Black

Pub Date: April 7th, 2004
ISBN: 0-618-31080-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Taking a break from the foreign-affairs beat, amateur fly fisherman Black (The Good Neighbor, 1988, etc.) broadly contemplates northwest Connecticut’s Housatonic River, its Shepaug and Naugatuck tributaries, and their respective fates.

The Shepaug River, the author declares, is his “Platonic ideal of a trout stream”: pristine, musical, cradled in a handsome landscape, and filled with trout (at least until Memorial Day, when downstream Waterbury taps into the river). A mere ten miles to the east runs the Naugatuck, a poisonous swill of auto tires, shopping carts, and chemicals with names too long for comfort. Why was this? Black asks. How did natural phenomena, human choices, economics, odd moments of timing, and simple twists of fate come to this pass? The author approaches the rivers from two complementary perspectives: ecologically, as a question of hydrology, geology, botany, zoology, and climate change; and politically, as an important and intricate analysis of “the social, economic, and political food chain of the watershed.” Here, he discovers, was the epicenter of American iron and armament production from the Revolution to the Civil War, and here he discovers the trout pool paradox: “the production of iron required exactly the same ingredients that make up ideal trout habitat: limestone, fast water, and the cooling forest canopy.” That the Shepaug didn’t go the route of the Naugatuck was really a matter of timing: the railroad to the furnace came too late, and the area’s sheer loveliness attracted a resident population with the economic and political wherewithal to protect the land from development. Black does a neat job of spelling out the class warfare embodied by the two rivers, providing a trim history of Waterbury’s sorry political landscape. He also gives away his secret: having fished there for years, “I had never once seen another angler on these wild trout waters.” He can forget that now.

A weapons-grade indictment of river despoliation, and an astute analysis of the socioeconomic factors that affect it. (Illustrations throughout)